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United States of Paranoia: Excerpt

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When a new journal called Critique debuted in 1980, mixing articles about conspiracies and social control with essays on mysticism and the paranormal, it became clear just how eclectic the conspiracy subculture could be.

Critique was created by Bob Banner, a young man who first stumbled into the conspiracy world at Santa Rosa Junior College in the mid-1970s. He was in his early twenties, and his life felt aimless: “I was drinking a quart of beer, fucking as many women as I could possibly find, and I was in a spiritual crisis, a psychological crisis.”13 Then he took a course in comparative religion from an instructor named Norman Livergood. When Banner found out that Livergood had a small center of his own—“it was like a secret society, it was like a mystery school”—he asked if he could join. They told him he had to get a haircut, shave his beard, buy a suit, and a find a full-time job. He did all of the above, and Livergood let him into the group: about a dozen people sharing a house and studying esoteric ideas.

According to Banner, Livergood’s eclectic interests ranged from the mysticism of G. I. Gurdjieff to the political theories of Lyndon LaRouche, and he had a shelf full of publications from the Institute for Historical Review, an organization infamous for arguing that the Holocaust never happened. Banner adds that Livergood was intrigued by UFOs and by Wilhelm Reich’s ideas about sex. At one point, Banner told me, there was talk of “using our sexual attractiveness to other people to possibly bring them into the group.” Here Banner paused. “It sounds like I was in a cult. And yes, to a certain degree I was. We were a cult trying to figure out what the fuck we were.” 14

Livergood eventually kicked Banner out, but he left a mark on his former student. The first issue of Banner’s magazine included an editorial that seemed simultaneously to reflect Livergood’s social critique and to turn it against Livergood himself:

During the 60s there were created “movements” which infiltrated American culture and politics. We were living in an emotionally strife era where racism, sexism, ageism, imperialism, corporatism, psychiatrism, patriotism and nuclear familyism were being attacked ruthlessly and irresponsibly. Movements were created overnight to destroy any new “disease” located in our cultural psyches. People who had the slightest degree of leadership capability amassed alien, atomized individuals to commit their time, rage, money and energy for purposes which these self-appointed leaders assumed to be meaningful.

We didn’t question the possibility that we were being duped. Our new beliefs were considered to be our own. We held onto them like cherished artifacts discovered in a cave of lost treasure. We wore them like clothes to distinguish us from our “enemies”: that multitude who did not believe the way we did. We didn’t see that we were becoming as attached to ideas and belief systems as those people we categorically lumped together on the other side. We didn’t see it because we didn’t want to. It was too easy and comfortable to align ourselves with ideas that were in opposition to the “established reality.”

Critique, he hoped, would evoke “the spirit to think, reflect, create and act toward gaining a deeper understanding of the often invisible manipulating influences and of who, in fact, we are and who we are becoming.” 15

When Banner describes this period of his life today, he makes his younger self sound simultaneously skeptical and naive. On one hand, he was willing to interrogate not just the normal assumptions of American society but the assumptions of the most popular alternative social visions as well. At the same time, he was the sort of person willing to follow one of those trails into the arms of a group he came to consider a cult. Make that two groups that he came to consider cults: At the dawn of the nineties, feeling aimless again after a decade of publishing Critique, Banner joined Xanthyros, an intentional community in Vancouver led by a guru named Robert Augustus Masters. Critique was revamped as a New Age magazine called Sacred Fire, and Masters took it over, with Banner serving as little more than a typesetter until he left the community.

That mixture of skepticism and naiveté characterized Critique as well. “What I really found refreshing about Critique,” Jay Kinney recalled in 2012, “was that he was in some ways like a newborn with no taboos, would publish anything that challenged consensus reality. He even published Holocaust revisionist material, in what I would call a rather naïve fashion, but he was sincerely engaged with the notion of, ‘Well, what if what we know about that isn’t true?’” Some of the weirder material was included for novelty value or comic relief: Banner wasn’t being serious when, in the midst of a roundup of plausible or at least thinkable conspiracy news items, he threw in someone’s theory that “Carter looks like a zombified robot” because he “was killed in July of 78 and replaced with a ‘double.’”16

Banner discovered a drawback to that approach when he manned a Critique table at an event near his home. “This guy shows up,” Banner told me, “and he’s so excited that he sees Critique. He loves my magazine. And he’s got mental problems.” The man rattled off references to drugs and aliens, to conspiracy theories and alternate realities; he sat on the ground leafing through back issues as he sang the publication’s praises. “And it’s the first time that I’m actually scared,” Banner recalled. “What the fuck am I doing if I’m attracting psychopaths or psychotic people or people who maybe really believe this shit I’m putting out? I’m doing it as an intellectual exercise to continually play with ideas and hold these ambiguities in my head. . . . Someone’s actually paying attention, and I need to be cautious.”

Banner was very different from Peter McAlpine, and Critique was very different from Conspiracy Digest. But the two men read and appreciated each other’s work, and they were recognizably a part of the same subculture, a world the libertarian activist Samuel Edward Konkin III, writing in 1987, dubbed “Conspiracy Fandom.”17 By the time Critique was supplanted by Sacred Fire, new conspiracy fanzines were arriving to take its place, each with its own tone and flavor. Steamshovel Press launched in 1988. The Excluded Middle and Paranoia both followed in 1992.

excerpted from THE UNITED STATES OF PARANOIA, copyright (c) 2013 by Jesse Walker.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 29 August 2013 16:27 )  


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